All of us know, but we sometimes forget, that all children do not learn at the same rate, within the same time frame, with the same ease; nor can they be expected to reach a uniform level of achievement by the time they become adults. That knowledge, unfortunately, does not prevent us from having grand expectations of our own children, which began with their birth. Nor does it keep us from making behavioral comparisons with other children that are both meaningless and dangerous.
Our rosy expectations of our kids are beneficial if they encourage us to give them the attention and support they need to achieve the potential they have. They can also be devastating to our child's development and self-image if our expectations exceed his/her potential, or if we lack the patience to allow his/her skills and interests to develop naturally during the formative years.
When we enforce unreasonable expectations, and especially when we punish according to them, we put stress on kids, who respond by avoiding, escaping, and becoming irritable. Ironically, that puts them off whatever activity, skill, or virtue we're trying to inculcate, making it aversive rather than attractive. So how can a parent seek to counter the natural tendency to expect too much behaviour from children?
First, aim to build competencies by inching toward success gradually, and focus on process rather than successful outcome: That is, focus on trying to do what's valuable, not on immediately reaching the level of performance you think a child of that age should reach. If you encounter strong resistance, then back off for a few days, and when you return to the issue, lower your demand.
Seek to get the desired behaviour for a shorter period, ask for less of it. For example, let's say your child is lagging behind the rest of his class in reading. His teacher wants you to work with him at home on his reading every day for 20 minutes. The resistance, on top of the reading problems, produces a situation that makes you crazy with frustration and anxiety. One method you can try is, "We're going to read to each other. You read for two minutes, and we'll talk about what you read, then I'll read for two minutes and we'll talk about it." Then, once you've got the habit in place, over a week or two you can escalate in easy stages up to 20 minutes of reading.
Our expectations of our children's psychological abilities, even more than of their physical abilities, are typically much too high. The research shows that we consistently overestimate their self-control, ability to persevere and stay on task, consistency of performance, and social ability. It's normal for a 2-year-old to get bent out of shape if he doesn't get something he wants; it's normal for a 3-year-old to lose it if there's an unexpected change in the bedtime routine; it's normal for a 6-year-old to fail to sustain focus on classical dance.
We know this, and we know that each of these developmental stages will probably pass in a few months' time, but, still, we stand over the child with index finger raised, an unpleasant edge in our voice, futilely repeating: "I said you'd get it later," or "Why are you making such a big deal about your bedtime story?" It is sometimes difficult for parents with high expectations, who may themselves be high achievers, to remember that the occupation of children is to play and to learn.
We must learn to accept the fact that during their developmental years, children cannot be expected to exhibit adult behaviour. More likely, many of the things they do will seem almost calculated to drive you up the wall. Nothing I have to say in this article will make your child's annoying behaviour any less worrisome or exasperating, but it may be easier to live with if you understand what's normal and where the child is coming from.
A secure and loving home environment and emotional stability within the family appear to be the major elements in overcoming some of the specific behaviours that concern or displease parents. You can deal successfully with these problems if you refrain from making an issue of them, pay close attention to the emotional needs of your child, make sure that he/she knows you love him, whatever they do, and exert yourself to make them feel secure. If you develop that kind of warm relationship with them, you'll do more than eliminate annoying habits. You'll be rewarded with a happy, confident, and emotionally stable child!
(The author is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Learning Arena, an e-learning company)